Brayan Valle was looking to buy some marijuana.
When he reached out to a business associate of his uncle’s, a drug connection, Valle became involved in a much more serious offense. Rather than sell Valle the marijuana, the associate asked for his help to smuggle drugs over the U.S.-Mexico border — by drone.
The case signals the first drug-smuggling drone seizure along the Southwest border.
On Thursday, Valle, now 21, was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in operating the remote-controlled drone and collecting 30 pounds of heroin from a Calexico-area field in April 2015.
“Use of drones appears to be on the horizon,” U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel said before announcing the sentence. “The court needs to be clear these cases present considerable danger to our community.”
Authorities say law enforcement agencies since have intercepted at least two more drones carrying drugs, including one seizure near Yuma, Ariz., that netted about 30 pounds of marijuana in January. Doubts have been raised, however, as to how popular the smuggling method could become, given how little weight drones can carry.
In Valle’s case, it took hours for the drone to make four drops over the border fence, Assistant U.S. Atty. Sherri Hobson said.
The case started when Valle approached his uncle’s friend about obtaining some marijuana, defense lawyer Kathryn Thickstun said. The friend instead suggested helping him smuggle marijuana over the border in exchange for some.
Valle agreed but later tried to back out, Thickstun said. She said he was told he had no choice. Valle recruited a friend from high school whom he’d known only a month, Jonathan Elias, to drive him to and from the drop-off point.
The smugglers provided Valle with cellphones to coordinate the transaction via the encrypted WhatsApp messaging application, as well as the drone’s remote control, which would enable him to release the drugs from the drone’s claw, prosecutors said.
For hours in a field about a half-mile from the border, Valle collected the bubble-wrapped drugs, which he thought were marijuana packages but turned out to be heroin. He filled a backpack to capacity. Border Patrol agents observed him loading it into Elias’ trunk on Highway 98.
Valle and Elias each pleaded guilty to possession of drugs with intent to distribute.
The prosecutor said Valle’s role in pulling off the smuggling should not be minimized, while Valle’s lawyer said Mexican drug traffickers had taken advantage of a “young, malleable, impressionable man who was looking to buy a small quantity of drugs.”
The judge noted that Valle’s criminal record, which includes a battery conviction and reports of making violent threats to his ex-girlfriend, was a factor in the sentencing decision.
Elias is to be sentenced June 3.
Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.